Leadership, direct feedback, and calling it as it is

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brian Ede
  • Commander, 58th Airlift Squadron
That is an ugly baby!
Ever heard that? Or wanted to say it but didn't? It's not something you want to hear as a new parent, but it is something we as supervisors should not be afraid to say when it is appropriate. Now before you hit the send button on the hate email about how cute your kids or grandkids are, let me explain....
In today's Air Force, and I dare say world, we are often afraid of giving clear, concise and effective feedback because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. However, in the 58th Airlift Squadron, we are charged with training the world's C-17 aircrews. It does our hundreds of students no good if our instructors tell them that every landing or loading exercise was "good." When I meet with our new instructors I tell them: "Don't be afraid to call an ugly baby ugly." Students need to know where they stand with their skills, good and bad. If we do not tell them where they are making their mistakes and we pass them on their check-ride then we have done them, their units and the US Air Force a great disservice. Therefore, I ask our instructors to be very candid in feedback to their students. Be honest, tell them what they did well, tell them what they did not do well and most importantly, tell them how to fix it!
This feedback can be extended to everyday supervision and leadership. If we as supervisors are afraid of hurting feelings when giving feedback then A: We are probably not doing it right and B: We are missing the point. We owe it to those we supervise to always give candid feedback. If we fail to do this, then we have failed as supervisors and worse yet, we have set our folks up to fail as well. While providing this candid feedback, we do not have to be abrasive, condescending, or abusive. Feedback should not be feared, but welcomed by our subordinates. If we have clearly articulated our expectations to them, then our feedback should not be unexpected or considered hurtful. And lastly, it should include a plan to fix the "ugly baby."
And yes, feedback is most definitely a two-way street. As a supervisor, we should be asking our subordinates for candid feedback in return. After every flight in addition to providing our student's feedback on the flight, I also ask them what could I have done better as an instructor to make their overall learning experience better. How else can we get better as officers, enlisted, and civilian members of the greatest Air Force in the world if we don't get honest feedback on our own performance? We should welcome it.
As many may have noticed, this article focused on negative feedback and has conspicuously left out providing positive feedback. Why is that, you may ask. Well, simply put, it is never hard to give positive feedback. As supervisors we want to give positive feedback, but it's the "ugly baby" we don't want to talk about. As supervisors and leaders, it's important for our folks to know that just because there are "ugly babies" out there; it doesn't mean we love them any less. Thankfully, we can fix these types of "unfortunate infants"... so just call them ugly, fix it and move on.